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Son of Fire - Nicholas Nickleby


Smike; Nicholas Nickleby.


Nicholas Nickleby

      Nicholas Nickleby was begun while Dickens was still writing Oliver Twist, but where that novel is dark and ominous, Nickleby is light and effervescence. Like Pickwick, the mode is episodic and seemingly effortless. The plot meanders and dallies, trying on many masks and as quickly taking them off again. The author, all the while, appears in the thrall of his own loquacious talents. By its end, the novel seems held together only by the novelist's sheer force of will.


 When the eponymous hero's unfortunate father dies, Nicholas assumes the role of head of the Nickleby family. The young man is brash, dashing, and somewhat rash. When, early on in the book, he whips the wicked Wackford Squeers, everyone reading it cheers. Next, Nicholas makes a highly successful foray into acting by playing the role of Romeo. Subsequently, when he rescues his love Madelaine Bray from a marriage of convenience with the decrepit miser Arthur Gride, Nicholas seems capable of righting the fate of star-crossed lovers.


 Nicholas Nickleby's foremost characteristics – passion, audacity, and spunk - are clearly the corollary of Charles Dickens' real-life character. That the vivacity of the two men are shared is reified by the portrait Dickens included of himself in the book's original frontispiece, commonly known as the aptly named The Nickleby Portrait. It may be worth noting that the newlywed Dickens gave his real-life bride's name, Kate, to his alter ego's sister.


 The portrait Nicholas holds is of Smike, the abandoned and abused child of his contemptible uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Nicholas rescues the boy from Dotheboy's Hall, a boarding school for unwanted children. The heinous schoolmaster Wackford Squeers was based on the real-life William Shaw, a self-styled schoolmaster Dickens encountered while investigating just such schools in Yorkshire. As a direct result of Dickens' portrayal of the abominable conditions of these schools, the Yorkshire boarding school industry was dismantled and its establishments put out of business. In a curious twist, one of William Shaw's descendants, Ted Shaw, became President of the Yorkshire branch of the Dickens Fellowship – a group whose mandate is, in part, “to take such measures as may be expedient to alleviate existing social evils”.


 When Nicholas Nickleby first appeared, it spawned countless imitations and outright plagiarisms – one calling itself Nickelas Nickleberry by “Bos”. However, while it was incredibly successful in its day and sealed Dickens' unprecedented popularity, today Nicholas Nickleby is one of Dickens' least read and reviewed works. In the first dozen years after its publication, over 100, 000 copies had been sold. By comparison, in 1968 in the United States, an estimated 3, 300 copies of Nickleby sold, whereas in the same year 293, 060 copies of A Tale of Two Cities were sold.



ShorthandQuite the lad - a right whipper-snapper - alert - active - probably undisciplined - fleet footed - nimble - intolerant but intuitive - unpredictable - even somewhat startling - yet usually seen to be right in retrospect - if self-righteous - drawn to conflict for its own sake - unmistakably enterprising - disobliging - something of a plug nickel - markedly handsome - discursive - perhaps a little facile - in the end, a flash in the pan.

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